Monday, 20 February 2012

Billy the Sweep

We sometimes come across Quarter Sessions cases that read like episodes from a soap opera. Take this unfortunate incident from 1843 involving William Smith, a Leighton Buzzard chimney sweep known as Billy the Sweep. Putting together the various depositions and Smiths own statement the gist of the story appears to be as follows:

Billy the Sweep arrived home intoxicated and discovered his wife had taken out a contract with the tally man (buying goods "on tick" or hire purchase). He insisted on knowing what she had bought. When she refused to tell him how much she had paid for a shawl he carried out a threat to cut it up. Unfortunately as his wife tried to rescue the shawl her thumb got in the way of the knife Billy was using and she was badly cut. She cried "murder" and a couple of neighbours, Maria Gardner and Mary Gilbert, rushed to her aid and bound up the bleeding digit. Meanwhile a rumour reached the Royal Oak Public House that Billy the Sweep had chopped off his wife's thumb. A noisy crowd gathered outside Smith's house, laughing and teasing Billy. After a failed attempt to close the shutters and stop the crowd peering in through his window, Billy reached a pitch of exasperation in which he threatened to shoot the onlookers if they did not go away. Enraged he grabbed the nearest thing to hand. This turned out to be a potato fork - I presume this would have been similar to a modern garden fork - which he jabbed through the window into the face of an unfortunate bystander, Henry Munday.

The Royal Oak in Friday Street, Leighton Buzzard c.1925

Munday fainted, bleeding profusely. The fork had caused a minor wound to his left cheek, but a tine had penetrated deeply between his right eye and his nose. The surgeon who examined him, Philip Wynter Wagstaff, later measured the depth of the wound as greater than one inch. During that evening symptoms suggested to the surgeon that it was likely to proved fatal. Fortunately he was mistaken and by the time he gave his deposition he believed that Munday would not lose the eye and would make a full recovery. Meanwhile Billy the Sweep had been arrested and incarcerated in the parish lock-up, where he became maudlin and was heard threatening to hang himself. The constable removed his handkerchief and other items and "confined him by the leg". By this time however Billy had reverted to the furious and exasperated stage, declaring that he wished he had shot Munday and "should not care a damn if I had killed him". In the cold light of day, sobered up and facing examination by the magistrate, he was very apologetic. He was bailed to appear for trial at the Easter Quarter Sessions where he was convicted and sentenced to six months hard labour. [QSR1843/2/5/15]

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